Biff and his new wife Blythe in the Starbucks line. If he turned around and saw me, he’d bring up the “writing for free” thing. Because that’s what he always does. So I put my head down. Try not to breathe.
It doesn't work.
Biff is decked out in a seersucker jacket, linen slacks and sandals. Black hair slicked back. But it was Blythe, blonde, tanned, toned and a wicked grin that said, “Maybe you’re next and won’t it be fun?” to every man in view, who caused Biff to turn and spot me.
Here’s what happened.
Blythe smiled at the slack jawed barista as she handed him a pound of coffee, and the baseball sized diamond on her finger, caught a shaft of sunlight that bounced off the silver espresso machine temporarily blinding the barista. He dropped a pitcher of boiling milk on his arm, and screamed out in pain, “I’m an actor! I don’t need this shit!”
Biff and Blythe turned politely away from the yelp of pain and that’s when Biff saw me. Eager for a distraction he asked, “Hey stranger! You still writing for free?”
I shrugged. Changed the subject.
“Been traveling Biff?”
“We’re just back from Cabo. Romantic get away for me and the little lady here.”
“But this summer, we’re taking the kids to Paris. We figure it’s time.”
“That’s great Biff. You too Blythe. Well, gotta get back to all that free writing. See ya!”
Walking out the door, it struck me again that I never told anybody the real answer to that “Why do you write for free?” question.
So maybe it was time.
The answer is that I never write for free. Never have. Never will. There is always an investment and a return. The return might not be money. But there is an investment and a return.
For those looking at the world as something explainable by an excel spreadsheet, my answer might sound strange.
Where’s the return on investment if you write for free? Where’s the money?
Money? I love the stuff. Wish I had more. I wake up at 4:00 am a lot and think about all the ways I can get more, worry about not having enough. Once I had a lot more.
Maybe if money were my sole goal, I would have more. But for whatever reason, it’s not my sole goal. No nobility in that. Just the way I was hard wired.
When I write, I have other goals besides the literal exchange of writing for cash. All of them include a return on investment.
Here are 6 reasons to write. Situations where I give something to get something
1. Doing what I do best. Up till 2008 I had one job at a time. Now I’m a contractor. I often do the same type of work I’ve always done. They call it “talent or change management.” It means helping make people more valuable to an organization during tough times. I work regularly. But I rarely do what I do best. My job is to be an extra pair of hands.
So now when I want to do what I do best, I write. My investment is my time. My return? Doing something that feels like it matters. Doing one of the things I do best.
2. Writing is really hard. Bad writing is easy. But filling the blank page with words that grab a person by the heart and make them want to read? That’s hard. Don’t think so? Try it. I don’t always succeed, but when I do, my investment in the writing gives me back a return that is like a handful of diamonds. Huge investment. Huge reward. The challenge of doing something hard.
3. People respond when I write. I used to be a special education teacher. I helped start a workforce development program for high risk dropouts, have written and delivered senior management programs on visioning and succession planning, I’ve trained hundreds to run retail operations, and thousands to use their strengths. And the BEST part of all that? It’s when people respond.
Same with the writing. The return I get when somebody says they read something I wrote is like climbing a mountain and breathing in the sky.
4. I need the practice. In “Outliers” Malcolm Gladwell cites 10,000 hours as the amount of practice time one needs to become really good at something. If Malcolm Gladwell says it, that’s enough for me. I have closed in and passed that Gladwell number.
5. I get to read other writers. I learn. I copy. I get better.
6. I get to share what I see as important. How cool is that?
Investment in time. Return in getting better at what I do. And having fun!
I know the larger social justice implications of writing when no one gets paid. It’s either a travesty or a genius business model. A debate for another time.
My writing is an investment. But it’s also self-promotion. Self promotion that could always lead back to (Surprise!) Money.
Looking back, I’ve written all my life. Writing training materials, and ghost writing books going back 20 years. All through that time when I worked for one company at a time.
But it’s only since the economy blew up that have I really made my writing investment in constant self promotion.
I co-authored a book sold on commission to a not for profit who will use the book sales for fund raising. That book will be out September 28.
My book “Finding Work When There Are No Jobs,” the first original approach to finding work since "What Color Is Your Parachute?" will be released with national distribution in January 2013.
And “Street Corner Spirits” a collection of my “Chicago Guy” essays on the Ezine Fictionique and the blog aggregator Open Salon is forthcoming.
See all that self-promotion? Starting with a story in a Starbucks line?
It looks like writing for free. But look closer.
It’s an investment. Looking for a return.